Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 5, 2011

More on Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women


Some time ago, I heard Harriet Reisen read from her biography of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, which I posted about here. l I bought her book that night, but much as I enjoyed the talk, didn’t open it right away. I’ve read other biographies and thought I knew most of the story.

At last I picked up the book, which I highly recommend. Harriet Reisen’s love for Louisa May Alclott comes through, though after the warm introduction, she sticks to nineteenth century facts. There’s no authorial intrusion commenting on Louisa’s father, but her annoyance, which I’m well familiar with, at how Bronson Alcott often left much of not only raising the four girls but providing food for them to his wife subtly comes through. For instance, when describing how Bronson spent time in the Boston Athenaeum researching his ancestors, while his wife, Abby, tended to “the ancestors’ descendents.”

I knew the story of how James Field, well known editor of the Atlantic Monthly as well as books, including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, turned down a story Louisa submitted with advice to “stick to teaching.” Ouch. And I thought those “sorry, not for us” notes hurt. Perhaps what bothered Louisa most was that Mr. Fields went so far as to include an offer of a loan to start a kindergarten, an offer Louisa felt compelled to take due to the family’s poverty. What was new to me, was that Louisa repaid this loan years later, when Little Women was a phenomenal best-seller. Again, Harriet Resien doesn’t write emotions a biographer might not know, but makes clear with what joy, and a certain warranted vengeance, Louisa must have penned the note she sent with a check for forty dollars.

And of course I knew that Louisa Alcott had died in 1888, two days after her father. But the ending of this biography is a lesson in how moving great nonfiction can be. There are no scenes such as Louisa wrote in her novels,  but Resien sets the stage of Louisa failing from what was likely a stroke, lying with her older and only remaining sister by her bed. Anna was asked to tend to their father’s funeral, and Resien makes us feel how Anna must have hated to leave her dying sister. Duty called. Anna left. And I cried. Louisa May Alcott, who shaped so many people’s ideas of what family love might be, died with no one at her side.


  1. How timely! I just reread Little Women when I was sick, so I’m glad to read your thoughts about this biography. It’s going on my to-read list, which is now very long. (Not that I mind that in the least.) ­čÖé

  2. Jeannine, do you think that’s a requirement, to love the person you are writing about? Of course a certain obsession is pretty much a requirement to sustain a whole book… just wondering if you’ve ever read a biography (or written something biographical) about someone you weren’t particularly enamored of. (Maybe more curious about?)

  3. I expect your to-read list is long! But I think you’d enjoy this — a whole different tone than in Little Women, but there are strengths and triumphs LMA never really allowed herself to show in Little Women, partly because she wouldn’t entirely acknowledge the dips before them.

  4. I’d have to go back to the book to be sure, or maybe it was something the biographer said in her talk, but I’m thinking this was a 20 year effort, the sort of things I’ve heard from other biographers. In which case, yes, love or its cousin obsession had best be involved, or who could stand it?
    But for smaller works, no, and I think many are driven by that perhaps more distant cousin of love, curiosity. When I follow, sometimes it dead ends or snags, but sometimes it turns into appreciation, respect, or even love. A very useful companion.
    I’ve definitely written about people I didn’t love, but none I disliked. Even with those we cherish, there are traits and times that we wish weren’t part of them. Hmmm… Irene, you may have started me on a new blog topic. So much to consider in your question. Thanks!

  5. So much to ponder and appreciate in this post. Definitely adding this to my TBR list (hope it’s available on Kindle!).
    I don’t think you necessarily have to “love” your subject at the outset, so much as be curious, fascinated, and/or intrigued. For me, it’s a love of research, the hope of being surprised at where you are led/what you discover along the way. Sometimes what you thought you loved about someone or something changes in the light of cold hard facts.

  6. I would guess you don’t have to love the person, but probably have to find them fascinating. You could even be repelled, as long as there is some intrigue, some desire to understand them.

  7. I read a bio that purported to be about LMA, but more than halfway through, the book was still focused on her father. It really should’ve been called “Bronson and Louisa.”
    I’m guessing a lot of LMA biographers end up having strong feelings about Bronson, and the temptation must be very great to let those feelings come out on the page.
    Have you read LMA’s journals? I vacillated between finding them fascinating and wondering if I should even be reading them because she so clearly never wanted them published.

  8. Ooh, I have to read this bio. Thank you for sharing this post!

  9. Sounds like an interesting read!

  10. Jenn, yes on fascinating. I know some can write about people who repell them, and do it well, but I have to spend so long with anyone I write about, that I choose to write about people who are good company.

  11. Jama, I’m sure this is available on kindle. There’s an accompany PBS documentary — all Alcott’s words, then enacted — which is nice, but of course can’t get to the depth and detail in this volume.
    And, oh, love of research. Reisen made my research-loving heart beat hard when she alluded to obsessively stopping at used book stores, and picking up a book she already owned, when a carbon copy of a letter with an address she could use fluttered out.

  12. Yeah, Bronson can overshadow anyone, even Louisa, and, yes, strong feelings rise when you read some of the things he said/wrote about her.
    I read the journals without guilt: she grew up in a household where everyone seemed to read, and clip portions of, and burn each other’s journals, so I think she wrote those always with a view to that they’d be read. At least they read that way to me: rather abbreviated, at least by the time she reached fame as an author (at which point she had plenty of chances to put the earlier ones in a fire, if she chose.) But maybe I’m just being a busy-body researcher here.

  13. Thanks for reading!

  14. Very interesting. I’m guessing you won’t have much patience for Louisa’s father though. I’d love to hear your words…

  15. *swoon* Serendipity at its finest. I miss browsing in London’s bookstores — the smallish ones on Charing Cross or Tottenham Court Road.
    Just last night I downloaded the book to my Kindle! ­čÖé I’m getting spoiled with the instant gratification of obtaining ebooks. . .

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  17. Sorry to be coming to this late, Jeannine. But you’ve made me long to read the Resien biography! I knew about the two days between LMA and BA’s deaths, but I had never stopped to think about what that might mean when it came to funeral obligations. So sad to think of Louisa at the end, and Anna not there.

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